Providence Journal profiles LISC-funded program at Amos House

Providence’s Amos House a lifeline for former convicts and addicts

By Katie Mulvaney
Journal Staff Writer

Posted Jan 1, 2018 at 8:04 PM Updated Jan 1, 2018 at 9:31 PM

“Really the goal is long-term stability. We’re trying to build their skills on all levels,” said Jennifer Kodis, coordinator of employment and training at Amos House. Participants continue to receive assistance with job searches and job retention for a year.

 

PROVIDENCE, R.I. — For more than a decade, Lavina Qualls had a pattern going on in life. She’d do drugs, shoplift to support her habit, get arrested, sober up in prison, get released, repeat.

Today, Qualls, 33, is determined to leave that cycle behind. And with a hand up from Amos House and LISC Rhode Island, it’s more likely than ever that might just happen.

“This is about fixing your life completely, not just getting clean,” Qualls said recently, during an interview at Amos House.

Qualls is one of seven participants in a new 16-week reentry program aimed at helping people recently released from prison develop job, financial literacy and life skills that will help them leave that pattern in the past. The program is funded by a $4.5-million U.S. Department of Labor grant to Local Initiatives Support Corporation Rhode Island, and has two main components: job training and education focusing on cultivating financial independence and math and literacy skills.

In the process, they will earn industry-recognized certificates that could lead to higher wages and career advancement opportunities, with the goal of achieving long-term financial stability.

“Now, I’m ready for this. I don’t want to use anymore. I want to fix my life,” said Qualls, a big personality whose green lipstick, nose ring and generous smile brighten the room. Qualls is learning culinary skills with a dream of one day opening a combination snack-barber shop with her boyfriend. Bacon cheeseburger mac and cheese is a specialty.

“This is really big for me because I never complete everything. I knew I had to go back to the beginning and restart,” Qualls said. Under the guidance of workforce education director Michelle Pugh she is learning knife, food safety and math skills; patience, teamwork and employer expectations. She knows she needs to take orders and work well with others, which is sometimes a challenge.

“I had to get rid of a lot of stuff because I had a lot of anger,” Qualls says. She sets goals daily, telling herself: “Just for today, I’m not going to be rude. Just for today, I’ll do my best.”

She lives in transitional housing at Amos House and regularly attends recovery meetings to fight her addiction to cocaine, alcohol and heroin, dependencies she says she developed after being raped as a teen.

Amos House and LISC received the grant in July; it was one of seven awarded nationwide. The grants target communities with high poverty rates, crime and former prisoners reintegrating back into society. Other recipients were in Chicago, Detroit, Indianapolis and Minneapolis.

While Amos House oversees the Amos Culinary Education and the Amos Carpentry Maintenance programs, LISC supports the financial literacy, skills building and education component through its Financial Opportunity Center and Bridge to Career Opportunities services. A nonprofit organization, LISC works to foster community development and economic recovery in depressed communities.

“Really the goal is long-term stability. We’re trying to build their skills on all levels,” said Jennifer Kodis, coordinator of employment and training at Amos House. Participants continue to receive assistance with job searches and job retention for a year.

The program, now in its first class, is aimed at people recently released from prison, on probation or parole, or under federal supervision, Kodis said. Participants are expected to remain clean and sober, though relapses are not automatic grounds for exclusion.

Anyone released within the past six months who is over 25 and is interested is eligible, as long as they demonstrate an interest in culinary or carpentry, according to Eileen Hayes, president and CEO of Amos House. They must be stable in their living situation so that they can take full advantage of program expectations. They should also be unemployed or underemployed and want to work upon completion, and in a census track with high rates of unemployment. Sex offenders are not eligible.

A total of 30 people are enrolled in the culinary and carpentry programs, 7 of whom are being funded as the first class under the federal grant, Kodis said. The fields were selected because they are “fairly forgiving” in terms of criminal histories and can earn skilled workers a decent salary, particularly if they can land themselves in a building trades union, she said.

“When folks come out of prison, they need help to stay out,” says Jeanne Cola, executive director of LISC Rhode Island. “If you become a good cook, you could make a decent living.”

PJ Fox, executive director of the Institute for the Study and Practice of Nonviolence, agrees.

“Anybody who gets released from prison, they have such a stigma attached to them, probably for their life,” said Fox, who works closely with that population. They face challenges not only finding employment, but stable, affordable housing in a tight rental market, he said.

“Housing is a huge, huge struggle for people with records,” Fox said.

He credits Amos House for providing newly released offenders with positive connections.

“The first few months coming out is when they make a commitment to change their lives or not,” Fox said.

Spencer McFadden, 47, is enrolled in the carpentry program.

“It’s hard having felonies on your record in Rhode Island,” McFadden said. “It’s the hardest thing in the world. Nobody wants to hire you.”

McFadden is learning framing, roofing and other skills. He has remained sober for more than 75 days from cocaine and alcohol addiction.

He estimates he’s spent about 15 years of his life behind bars for crimes that included assault, larceny and possession of a weapon.

“It’s tiring. That was wasted time,” he said. Today, he aspires to be a master carpenter and hopes to leave a legacy for his five children.

Juan Cuthbert shows up 15 minutes early for the carpentry classes and hasn’t missed a single one, despite working an overnight shift at Dunkin’ Donuts, his instructors said.

“A good guy gave me a chance. Someone gave him a chance,” Cuthbert said of the job.

Cuthbert, 31, too, spent more than a decade in jail before his release in August on a federal firearms charge. He is hoping, with guidance from Amos House, to leave his days dealing marijuana behind.

“I have a family. I have some kids. I need stability,” Cuthbert said one recent morning in the carpentry shop in the Amos House basement.

In addition to tool skills, he’s learning math, including the Pythagorean theorem, and brushing up on English to strengthen his interviewing skills. The class studies from a thick textbook and takes tests.

“It’s not just banging a hammer,” said Cuthbert, a soft-spoken and reflective man.

He has three children, ages 14, 6 and 4. “I can’t be in and out of jail anymore. They need me,” Cuthbert said. “I’d rather raise my children than anyone else.”

Cuthbert and McFadden recount time spent with another inmate in an 8-foot-by-10-foot cell, the same size as the shed they were making in class.

Part of their coursework entails learning to keep their fingers and toes safe from harm while handling power tools and other equipment. They also must learn to take direction.

“I always tell my kids there’s nothing wrong with being a follower if you’re being led in the right direction,” Cuthbert said.

“This is a lifesaver. Amos House is a lifesaver,” he says.

The carpentry program coordinator, Emir Roberson, tries to help students to tackle other obstacles, such as transportation. He guides them toward carpenters’ unions, which don’t discount members due to criminal history or age.

“I always try to show them other doors they can go through,” Roberson says.

Paris Wise, who oversees the carpentry practicum, remarked on the students’ motivation. “They have to want to do it. If you get your mind and your body into it, it’s a real life changer,” Wise said.

It’s that spirit that Qualls seizes on. She wants to take her three children back from her mother one day.

“I asked for this. I’m doing this for me. Here, they make me make myself first,” Qualls said shortly after serving eggs to hundreds of hungry folks at the Amos House kitchen.

She changed her course after it took nine administrations of the opioid antidote Narcan to revive her from an overdose June 18.

“I knew from that day I didn’t want to do this anymore. It’s time to grow up,” she said. “It’s now or never.”

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